by Mary Rupert
The Board of Public Utilities on Wednesday night extended its moratorium on utility shutoffs until Oct. 6.
The vote was 5-1, with Board President Bob Milan Sr. voting no.
Bill Johnson, BPU general manager, presented figures about delinquent accounts at the Zoom meeting. The recent moratorium from July 1 to July 31 saw the number of delinquent accounts increase by 52 percent, according to Johnson.
There were 1,823 residential accounts delinquent, owing $459,795, on July 1, compared to 2,773 delinquent accounts owing $633,358 on July 31, according to BPU figures. Renters were about $409,749 of the $663,358.
Currently, no other Kansas City area utilities are under a moratorium on electric, water or natural gas shutoffs, Johnson said.
Milan said he was concerned that they might be seeing the same people over and over again who were having trouble paying their bills, and that they were just “digging a hole” and making it worse by increasing the amount they owed. Other board members believed it showed a great need in the community.
Jeff Bryant, a board member, said while there would always be people who are going to play the system, that should not stop the BPU from helping those in need.
“I think we don’t understand the depth of the need in our community,” Bryant, a businessman, said.
Prices have been increasing, and wages in many cases have not kept up. People who were using their savings to get through the pandemic earlier may now have exhausted it, according to Bryant.
“It’s almost a double whammy,” Bryant said. “Your dollars are going away and the cost to live is increasing.”
Bryant added the BPU is proud that they were community-oriented and focused. The community is not nearly as rich as other communities around it, as shown by its median income, he said. Wyandotte County is going to have a larger portion of people who struggle than other communities, he said.
Board member Rose Mulvany Henry, an attorney, agreed with Bryant. “I don’t think we understand the depth of the impact of this pandemic on top of the generational poverty we already face in this community,” she said.
The reality, Milan said, is that the BPU bill is not the priority of some customers. They pay their telephone and cable TV bills first and their BPU bills last, he added. Everybody else gets paid, he said.
In answer to a question from board member Tom Groneman, Johnson said the BPU would continue to put a hold on disconnections on the accounts where people made a complete application to KERA and were waiting to hear from them.
Answering a question from board member Mary Gonzales, who is a retired teacher, Johnetta Hinson, executive director of customer service, said there were several payment arrangements offered to customers. There wasn’t a significant increase in those who signed up for the payment arrangements.
Bryant said that the $409,000 delinquent amount is a little over 2 percent of the monthly BPU income. The change was $112,000 in a month, which was a half of one percent change in the BPU’s revenue, he said. The BPU is still bringing in 99.5 percent of its revenue, he said.
“What I’m saying is the moratorium isn’t preventing us from collecting our revenue,” Bryant said. “But to remove the moratorium and begin shutoffs again would endanger people who for whatever reason have not applied to the KERA program. I know we have sent out a lot of information on it. There may be people waiting for their landlords to answer them about whether or not they’re interested in engaging in it.”
“I’m really struggling with the idea of removing the moratorium at this point, when we don’t fully understand the magnitude of the issue,” Bryant said. “I hesitate to shut people off when they’re in an environment that none of us have ever been in before.”
Board member Ryan Eidson, a businessman, voted for the moratorium extension, saying that when the issue comes up again, he wants to make sure all data is correct and there are no errors. The reason he voted “yes” is he doesn’t trust the data, he said. He asked many questions about the figures that were presented.
“The moratorium is a disadvantage to our customers,” Milan, a retired federal employee, said. As the bills keep piling up, it will be harder to pay them.
Other board members think the moratorium will give residents more time to sign up with KERA or other assistance programs.
The new moratorium through Oct. 6 will be for residential customers only.
The Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance program run by the state offers some rent and utility payments to people who were adversely affected by COVID-19. This program contains federal funds distributed to the state for rental and utility assistance. It includes a complicated application process involving filling out a lot of paperwork and also, renters need to have their landlords sign up with them for the assistance. For much of the last year, the BPU board has discussed the situation of the large need for utility assistance, yet the inability, lack of information or unwillingness of residents to access it.
At the Aug. 4 meeting, the BPU’s chief communications officer, David Mehlhaff, described many methods the BPU has used to get the word out about the KERA program. This past month, the BPU “robo-called” the delinquent renters accounts with a message about KERA’s availability.
He said that they have also posted information about the program on the BPU’s website prominently, as well as sent out printed newsletters to all BPU customers with information in it, posted information in the UG’s newsletter, sent out social media messages about it, and distributed fliers on it to area churches and groups. Also, the state of Kansas has been heavily advertising the KERA program on television and other media, reaching more people.
Some of the other information about delinquencies presented by BPU staff included:
• In the past moratoriums, the number of delinquent accounts had decreased by the end of the period, but this summer, it had increased, according to BPU officials.
• While the number of delinquent renters increased by 604, at the same time, the number of KERA program applicants increased by 158, according to BPU figures.
• The number of delinquent renters who were not on the KERA list increased from 1,020 on June 30 to 1,588 on July 31, according to the BPU. At this time KERA is only for renters, not homeowners. About one-third of the BPU’s 60,000 residential accounts are renters, according to officials.
• Delinquent homeowners owed $160,636 on June 30 and $150,020 on July 31. They are not eligible for the KERA program at this time, but they may be eligible for other assistance programs through local agencies.
For more information on KERA assistance and more guidelines, visit https://kshousingcorp.org/emergency-rental-assistance/.
For other assistance with food, housing and utilities, the United Way’s telephone number is 211.
BPU customers may call the BPU’s customer service department at 913-573-9190 to talk about their bills or make payment arrangements.
For an earlier story on the BPU’s moratorium on utility shutoffs, visit http://www.wyandottedaily.com/bpu-approves-one-month-moratorium-on-utility-disconnections/.